Specialists can help you navigate cruising choices


October 22, 2006|By Kyle Wagner | Kyle Wagner,Denver Post

The question of whether travelers still need an agent to book a trip in the online age gets murkier when one gets into cruising, which can be tougher for first-timers to navigate.

It can be hard for second- and third-time cruisers, too: How to choose from thousands of cruises, hundreds of ports, dozens of cruise lines?

Even if you know where you want to go, the choices continue. Is food quality most important, or would you rather put your money into shore excursions? Need a lot of closet space, or do you never set foot in the stateroom after Day 1?

And where can you get straight answers to these questions?

The cruise lines aren't always going to tell you. Their job is to get you on one of their ships.

This is where the cruise specialist comes in. A travel agent who is supposed to be an expert on cruising, the cruise specialist (also cruise consultant, cruise counselor or cruise agent) should be able to ask you questions about your cruising needs and then match you up with the right cruise.

"I really try to get to know them as well as I can to really get down to what will match them with the best possible cruise so they'll have a good time," said Anne West, a certified master cruise counselor in Denver.

West knows a good cruise when she sees one - she's been on 14 of them, and is headed for her 15th in a few weeks. In fact, a cruise is what changed her career path 11 years ago. She had been selling insurance - "So I knew I could sell" - but it wasn't until after her first cruise on the Star Princess to the Caribbean that it occurred to her to sell travel.

Much of her clientele comes from online connections. Her commission is paid by the cruise lines to the agency, not by the customer, but some cruise specialists do charge a fee.

"That should be one of your first questions," said Judy Lucas, a cruise agent who lives in Tucson, Ariz., and runs Concierge Cruises and Tours with her husband, Kern Lucas. "Ask the agent if there is a `planning fee' or a `plan to go fee' in advance." She added that some charge as much as $50 per booking and won't mention it until the end of the transaction.

What West and Lucas say is the biggest advantage they offer cruisers is someone to help with the details. "The most frustrating thing is when people book online with Ernie's Storm Door and Cruise Agency and then they realize, `Hey, I wonder about this port or that dining room,' and there isn't anyone to ask. Then they call me because they find my name online and see that I'm a so-called consultant, and I say, `Did you already book?' and they say `Yeah,' and I say, `I'm sorry, but I can't help you now.'"

So, say you have decided to go with a cruise agent. The next question should be how many cruises the agent has been on. "Some of these consultants will have only toured one or two ships and sailed once and call themselves `experts.' That's not enough," said Lucas, who has been on 116 cruises.

"It's just like any other career out there," Lucas said. "You want people to feel like they're coming to someone who is an expert in their field."

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